80 Years Ago: It Happened One Night

At the 7th Academy Awards held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles to honor the best films of 1934, It Happened One Night took Best Picture and swept the other top four categories, as well:  Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Yep, Frank Capra, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, and Robert Riskin, respectively, had a critical and commercial hit on their hands.

Going my way?

Going my way?

What? You never heard of Robert Riskin?  He was the screenwriter, which only goes to prove the old Hollywood adage that writers get no respect.   “What’s this business about being a writer?” producer Irving Thalberg once asked.  “It’s just putting one word after another.”

Riskin, by the way, was also nominated for four other films during his career: Lady for a Day, 1934; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1937; You Can’t Take it with You, 1939; and Here Comes the Groom, 1952.  He deserves credit for such titillating dialogue between Gable as rogue reporter Peter Warne and Colbert as runaway heiress Ellie Andrews in the famous hitchhiking scene, after Elllie stops a car by showing her leg.

Ellie Andrews: Aren’t you going to give me a little credit?

Peter Warne: What for?

Ellie Andrews: I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.

Peter Warne: Why didn’t you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.

Ellie Andrews: Well, oooh, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.

Sarcasm works just as well today as it did back them.

Not to make too big a deal of it, but it wasn’t until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, followed by The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, that a movie again won in the top five categories.  Will it happen this year?  Maybe.  American Hustle, based on an original screenplay scribed by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, the later also the director, has nominations in the requisite categories.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved


60 Years Ago: Down by the Docks

My husband and I watched On the Waterfront from 1954 the other night.  What a movie! Based on a series of articles, it’s about corruption in the longshoremen’s union in New York, although it was shot in Hoboken, Frank Sinatra’s hometown.

Oil on canvas 1934 by Pino Janni; Photo by: cliff1066

Oil on canvas 1934 by Pino Janni; Photo by: cliff1066

Everyone knows that its star Marlon Brando won his first Best Actor Oscar for his role as Terry Molloy.  When he told his brother, “I coulda been a contender,” it was heartbreaking. He had been nominated three times before: in 1951 for his performance as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire; in 1952 for Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata; and in 1953 for Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.  The later was in the same year that Brando played the iconic rebel biker Johnny Strabler in The Wild One.

Look at who else was in the cast.  Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  Eva Marie Saint, in her debut film role, won for Best Supporting Actress. Unaccredited actors included Fred Gwynne, Martin Balsam, and Pat Hingle.

Behind the scenes, Elia Kazan directed and Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay.  They earned Oscars, too.  All told, On the Waterfront had twelve Oscar nominations, including one for Leonard Bernstein for Best Score.

Yep, twelve, and On the Waterfront won in eight categories.

In 1981 Reds, which, coincidentally, was also about unions, albeit it in the 1910s leading up to the Russian revolution, repeated the feat, earning twelve nominations which included recognition for its star, director, and screenwriter, Warren Beatty, as well as Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Maureen Stapleton, other members of the cast.  It won in three categories, losing to Chariots of Fire for Best Picture.

All of this brings us to the current Oscar season.  Gravity and American Hustle, both of which I saw and thought were terrific, each received ten nominations, and Twelve Years a Slave received nine.  Impressive numbers to be sure, but not record-breaking.

Is it too early to say that they don’t make movies like they used to? Or, were there so many good movies this year that will all be around for a long time to come?

Before you answer those questions, On the Waterfront was shot for just under a million dollars and grossed ten times its production costs in its initial release.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved


Never a Wasted Moment

I’ve been a big fan of Sue Grafton’s since Kinsey Millhone, the thirty-year old private investigator at the center of Grafton’s series, solved her first case and shot a murderer dead in “A is for Alibi” in 1982.

Photo by:

Photo by:

Life moves slowly in Santa Teresa, the fictional California town that Kinsey calls home.  In the latest entry, “W is for Wasted,” it’s only 1988, when “it looked like things were as bad as they were going to get.  On the national front, congressional spending was a whopping $1,064.14 billion and the federal debt was topping out at $2,601.3 billion.  Unemployment hovered at 5.5 percent and the price of a first-class postage stamp had jumped from twenty-two cents to twenty-five.”

Makes you long for decades past, doesn’t it?

Kinsey, now thirty-seven, is as feisty as ever, as independent as ever, still living in her studio apartment where her elderly landlord, Henry, keeps a watchful eye on her.  When she takes a road trip to Bakersfield, he gives her a map, so she can get where she’s going.  Yep, there’s no GPS.  When she checks into a motel, she calls him with her phone number, just in case he needs to get in touch with her. Nope, she doesn’t have a cell phone.  No one does.

Kinsey conducts her interviews face-to-face.  She takes notes on index cards and types her reports on a Smith-Corona. After filling out a legal document, she makes copies on a Xerox machine and personally drops the original off at the courthouse.

Before falling asleep at night, Kinsey curls up with a Dick Francis novel.  Waiting for an appointment, she picks up a copy of People to learn that Bruce Springsteen is dumping his wife actress Julianne Phillips and hooking up with Jersey Girl Patti Scialfa.

It feels so right to relive the eighties through Kinsey’s eyes.  It makes me want to put on my jogging shoes and go for a run first thing in the morning, just like she does. I think the next book in the series should be “X is for Xhilerating.” Or, for this aging reader, make that “xhausting.”

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Deja vu all over again?  Watch Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon spoof Chris Christie’s Bridgegate to “Born to Run.”


Growing Old and Getting On With It

It’s a new year. Let’s try something new.


Joan and me circa 1974. Still laughing now.

My good friend Joan in Cleveland (via Brooklyn by way of Ithaca and the Twin Cities, with close ties to Chicago and formerly St. Louis, but now Houston) recently sent me an email in which she related a new HBO comedy, very black comedy, Getting On, which takes place in a nursing home.

In an interview on NPR,  “the series creators [Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer who brought us HBO’s Big Love] spoke of the amazing elderly actresses who have roles in the series,” Joan wrote me, “and who still possess beauty and great skills.”  She continued, “This may be something for your blog – strong, gorgeous and talented geriatric actresses.  Just an idea I’d love to read about.”

Oh, okay.  I’ve never honored any blog requests.  Actually, I’ve never had any blog requests, but I thought that this sounded intriguing. Let’s give it a go.

When checking out Getting On, based on a BBC program of the same name, I found out that Laurie Metcalf is one of the stars of the American version of the show.  Laurie Metcalf!  She might be over fifty (she’s fifty-eight, but doesn’t look it) and qualifies for AARP, but I’d hardly call her geriatric. I realize it was decades ago, but I still think of her as Roseanne’s kid sister Jackie.

Metcalf plays Dr. Jenna James. Her character has been described as a frazzled physician more involved with her fetid feces-related research than she is with her befuddled patients. She co-stars with Niecy Nash and Alex Borstein, both playing nurses in the extended care facility and both barely into their forties, and Borstein is only five feet tall.  What am I missing?

Oh, yes, the patients.

I don’t know how old Betty Murphy is, but she played a middle-aged woman on Jag in 1995 and  an elderly woman on Monk in 2002.  She’s getting up there!  She also played the cat lady on Desperate Housewives and appeared on The Practice and The Office.  Here she is Fiona Sullivan.

Gitta Hall plays Ingrid Larsen.  The actress, born in 1933, was Miss Stockholm of 1952, so she’s been around. “LA is great if you’re an orange,” she once proclaimed. I bet she now considers LA great if you’re an aging actress.  Who would have thought it?

Ann Morgan Guilbert, 85 years old, might be the oldest of the bunch, as well as the liveliest.  In an early episode, her character is caught having sex with her boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton, no spring pea himself) in the reception area.

Some of us know Guilbert as neighbor Millie Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Another generation is familiar with her as Yetta Rosenberg from The Nanny with Fran Drescher.  And yet another generation will forever remember her here as Birdy Lamb.

Can’t wait to view Getting On?  Unfortunately, the six-episode series started at the end of November – last year, and it has completed its run.  Maybe it will be back for a second season.  If not, there’s always YouTube.

This blogger’s desk is now open.

© 2013 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved


Shall We Dance?

From Fred Astaire to Kevin Bacon and Michael Jackson – fabulous!


The Magic of Postage Stamps

Has anyone purchased Harry Potter Forever® stamps? Each features a different character or scene from the Harry Potter movies. There are Hogwarts students and professors, friends and villains, fighting, flying, and frightening.Unknown-1

The U.S. Postal Service issued the collection in November 2013 in souvenir booklets of twenty.  At $.46 each, the collection costs $9.20, but it’s worth every penny and more.  Postage is going up to $.49 for a one-ounce first class letter in January.

We haven’t always been able to brand our envelopes with such colorful symbols of our own choosing.  In 1847 when the USPS started issuing stamps, there was no choice, but who could argue with the postmaster general.  Dead presidents and founding fathers, particularly George Washington who was both, were de rigueur for decades.

Over time the subjects used on stamps have been expanded to embrace pop culture.  Twenty years ago the USPS held an unprecedented nationwide contest to select the artwork for the 1993 $.29 Elvis Presley stamp.  Should the young Elvis in watercolors or, as it’s often referred, an old Elvis in oil be featured? Despite protests that the USPS was disregarding its own regulations that stamp honorees no longer be alive, over a million people voted, with over 75% preferring the virile rock ‘n roller at the start of his career.

The Elvis stamp is the most popular U.S. commemorative stamp of all time. Over 700 million have been bought, if not used.  And, you can add one to your collection today – for $.29.

So put a little magic in your life with a stamp showing Harry playing Quidditch or taking notes with his quill.  Just don’t expect to make a fortune.

© 2013 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved


Remembering Funny Men

1946 W.C. Fields Christmas card

1946 W.C. Fields Christmas card

Despite appearances, W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin had a lot in common.

They were both born into poor families in the late nineteenth century, Fields near Philadelphia in 1880 and Chaplin in London in 1889.  Before catapulting to fame during the silent movie era, Fields was in vaudeville.  He started as a juggler, appearing as a genteel tramp with a scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo, somehow managing to keep cigar boxes, hats, and other flying objects up in the air.

Chaplin, too, began on the vaudeville stage doing comedy sketches.  His impersonation of a drunk dressed in evening attire and top hat, attempting to light a cigar on a light bulb, was one of his most popular roles.

In character, Fields was a hard-drinking misanthrope, playing hustlers and card sharks with an animosity towards dogs and children.  Disputing this, Fields declared, “I like children – fried.”

Chaplin’s “the Tramp” was a good-hearted character who, regardless of his predicament which he often brought upon himself, acted like the perfect gentleman.  The Kid, “a picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear,” featured seven-year old Jackie Coogan as “the Tramp’s” adopted son and sidekick.

The public adored both Fields and Chaplin, but both were lonely. “I was loved by crowds, but I didn’t have a single close friend,” Chaplin once bemoaned.

Explaining to his family his aversion to Christmas and other “silly holidays”, Fields lamented, “It’s because those days point up a thing called loneliness. An actor on the road — as I was for so long . . . and around the world seven times–finds himself all alone on the days when everyone else has friends and companionship. It’s not too good to be in Australia, or in Scotland, or in South Africa, as I was on tour, all alone on Christmas Day, and to see and hear a lot of happy strangers welcoming that two-faced merriment-monger Santa Claus, who passes you by.”

"Christmas Charlie" -- By: Mike Margolis

“Christmas Charlie” — By: Mike Margolis

Still Fields would boast, “Christmas at my house is always at least six or seven times more pleasant than anywhere else. We start drinking early. And while everyone else is seeing only one Santa Claus, we’ll be seeing six or seven.”

Ironically, Fields died on Christmas day, 1946.  In his will, later contested by his estranged wife and one of his two sons (both named William, after the old man), he left a portion of his estate to an orphanage “where no religion of any sort is preached.”

By coincidence, Chaplin, too, passed away on Christmas day, 1977, survived by two sons (including Charles Spencer Chaplin III) from an early marriage and eight children from his fourth and last marriage with Oona O’Neill.

What tremendous legacies these funny men left. They always made us laugh and sometimes made us cry. We remember them with joy in our hearts and good will to all.

© 2013 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved


85 Years Ago: Oh, What a Doll!

You can buy a Madame Alexander doll wherever fine toys are sold.  Saks Fifth Avenue, for example, has a wide selection from babies to ballerinas, including Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious Cloth Dolls.

Photo by: Jennie Ivins

Photo by: Jennie Ivins

Or you can buy a vintage Madame Alexander doll on E-Bay.

Beatrice Alexander, the founder and namesake of the doll company, began her business from her kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York in 1923. The daughter of Russian immigrants, she learned her craft by the side of her father who operated the first-of-its-kind doll hospital.

Initially the Madame Alexander Dolls were homemade from cloth, but the business soon expanded. In the 1930s, Alexander added lifelike details.  With synthetics introduced in the 1940s, she began using plastic to create vinyl heads and hair that could be styled.

In the 1950s advertisements touted various models:

Madeline – fully jointed at wrist, shoulder, hip and knee for pretty posing.

Kate Smith’s Annabelle – with the pixie look.

Rosebud – soft plastic baby with voice and moving eyes.

Maggie Walker – walks where you lead her.

Dryper Baby Doll – let her drink, change her real Dryper pantie pad insert.

Alexander believed that dolls could be used to educate and created collections based on historic events, literature, music, art and film. Some of the well-known personages on whom she based her designs include Jacqueline Kennedy, Coco Chanel, the Dionne Quintuplets, and Queen Elizabeth and her daughters (at the royal family’s request). A Scarlett O’Hara doll is housed at the Smithsonian.

My mother received a Madame Alexander doll on her eighth or ninth birthday.  It was the height of the depression, so my mother wonders how her parents had the money for such a wonderful gift.  She still exclaims, “Oh, such a beautiful doll.”

© 2013 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved


100 Years Ago in Pop Culture: The Birth of a Filmmaker

In 1913 actor and filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille began shooting The Squaw Man In Hollywood.

A romance? A Western? Hollywood's first feature-length film

A romance? A Western? Hollywood’s first feature-length film

It was a bit of an accident that DeMille and his crew were there.  They had planned to locate to Flagstaff, Arizona, but the weather was so bad that December, nor were the vistas as spectacular as expected, that they took the train to the end of the line and decided to stay, the California climate and scenery being perfect for their endeavor.

The Squaw Man, a romantic drama based on a play, involves an English peer falsely accused of a crime his cousin had committed.  He escapes to the American West and marries an Indian woman, only to return home, without his wife who had died, when he is cleared of all charges.

The six-reeler, the first feature length film made in Hollywood, was a huge success.  DeMille, rather taken with the story, remade the move twice, again as a silent in 1918 and then as a talkie in 1931.

Tyrannical on the set, he wore a whistle around his neck and carried a large megaphone, so his instructions were loud and clear.  Although not an actor’s director, he was loyal to his actors, casting Claudette Colbert, Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Paulette Goddard, and Charlton Heston in multiple pictures.

DeMille became a celebrity in his own right, dressing the part in an open-necked shirt, riding pants, and boots. However, in his cameo appearance as himself in Sunset Boulevard (1950), he wore a conservative dark suit and tie.

The director’s best known endeavors came late in his career.  He made Samson and Delilah in 1949, The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, and The Ten Commandments in 1956.  In Egypt filming the Exodus scene for the later, then-75-year-old DeMille climbed to the top of the massive Ramesses set and suffered a near-fatal heart attack. Against his doctor’s orders, DeMille was back directing the film within a week.

Setting his sights on the stars, DeMille was planning a movie about space travel, when he died of a heart ailment in January, 1958.

© 2013 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved



Let’s Go to the Movies

I love this time of year.  No, I’m not thinking about holiday parties or hearing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” for the twentieth time in a television commercial. And I certainly won’t spend the month putting together my New Year’s resolutions. I’m talking about the movies!

Photo by: Janine

Photo by: Janine

The Oscar buzz has already started. Frontrunners, per pundits, include 12 Years A Slave and Gravity with Captain Phillips gaining.  It’s a competitive awards season, some even call it “cluttered”. For me it means more movies worth watching and performances to appreciate.  I’m partial to Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (which I saw last weekend) and Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine.  

There’s more comedy, drama, romance, fantasy out there: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station, Prisoners, Rush, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Before Midnight, Mud, The Place Beyond The Pines, Philomena, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, August: Osage County, The Book Thief, Her, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Lone Survivor, Labor Day and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

And more to come.  David O. Russell’s American Hustle with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence (what a cast!) is in theaters December 18. The Disney movie Saving Mr. Banks with Tom Hanks (who might be nominated for Best Actor for Captain Phillips) playing Walt Disney opens everywhere December 20, and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio (and Matthew McConaughey, again, but in a supporting role) opens Christmas Day. The trailers are wild.

I haven’t seen everything I’ve mentioned, nor will I.  I’m usually guided by the reviews, good or bad.  But I’ll be drawn to the cinema again and again.  If I have an appetite for action, I might take in Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a runaway success.  It stars a talented young actress who has already scored an Oscar. 

© 2013 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

“Let’s Go to the Movies” from Annie: